Tuesday, September 28, 2004

What a roller coaster today has been! I spent the morning in near hysterics, repeatedly refreshing my email in the hopes that The Answer would suddenly (and FINALLY) arrive. When Fred went to bed at around 1 p.m. my time still having received no answer, I shot his boss a quick email asking him to please let me know if he heard something today. I just couldn't face the thought of waking up YET AGAIN thinking "Today is the day I will know." I never expected good news to arrive at such a late hour, but when I got home this evening I got this:

Bonnie -- Great news! The RDCs will be invited to the worldwide. Sending out a note to Fred now. Take care.


It's hard to type when you're Snoopy-dancing, but I just got an additional shot of good news. I just got off the phone with Guide Dogs of Texas, and it looks like the guide dog puppy we raised for a year when we were living here will be graduating in a couple of months and getting a job!

Who would have thought this would turn out to be such a very good day?!

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Monday, September 27, 2004

I thought that we would have an answer about Fred's conference by today. Of course, I also thought he would have one waiting when he got to work on Saturday. Oh, yes, and Friday--he thought he'd know something then for sure. Oh, ha ha, yes, also Monday the 20th, which was the last day for RSVPs and therefore the day that they should know how many waitlisted people they would be taking. And let's not forget Monday the 13th, which should have been the day before I left for the States and therefore my last possible opportunity to pack for him and bring his stuff with me. We've been on this rollercoaster since shortly after we returned from Russia.

I sit here crying and I think that I really couldn't be more upset if they came back with a negative answer than I am with their persistent unwillingness to be bothered to give an answer. But I know that that's bullshit and that as upset as I am right now, it's just a fraction of how awful I'll feel if and when that last shred of hope is yanked away.

I hope TJAG (THE Judge Advocate General, for those not up on their military alphabet soup) is a closet reader of my blog. I want somebody to know even if they don't care what their indecisive pussyfooting means for our family. I'm not saying invite the man where no invitation would otherwise be forthcoming. Just give him a friggin' ANSWER!

All I know right now is that we get off a plane at BWI at 3 p.m. on Saturday, October 2. Beyond that, I know nothing. I have friends I want to see, but I can't make plans. Everything is on hold, and I can't believe that telling Fred one way or the other what's going on could really be that hard.

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Saturday, September 25, 2004

No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up.
-Lily Tomlin

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Friday, September 24, 2004

It's here, it's here! My suitcase is here!! Here's the slightly dazed Fed Ex man delivering it this morning:

He said he had never seen anybody so happy to get a lost suitcase before, and I believe it. The relief is overwhelming!

It has been a frustrating week, dealing with the Air Force. I swear, sometimes I think that I have worked harder on bringing this suitcase "home" than any single person in a uniform. And it has been hard, because the longer it went on, the more furious I became, but the farther removed said suitcase was from the dimwits (thank you, Rhein-Main!) who lost it in the first place. So I've had to preface my constant harping by saying: "Look--I know that YOU did not lose my suitcase. YOU are merely the person who has it now and who is trying to get it back to me. But let me tell you what I've been through . . . " Because it seems that there is always only 1 person at any given base who is tasked with managing lost and found luggage, and he may or may not be there, and he may or may not have the first freakin' clue about the found-luggage return system. But it doesn't matter now, because it's HERE!

Now, if only I could get word that Fred is, in fact, going to be at his conference (which starts a week from Monday), it would be a truly stellar day, and the Army could have some of the irrationally abundant affection I currently feel towards the Air Force. It could be a multi-force lovefest! Unfortunately, current intel (or lack thereof) suggests that it could be Monday before we get a final answer. I stand by my earlier statement that pregnant teenage girls are more efficient at throwing shotgun weddings than the JAG Corps is at planning a conference they host Every Single Year. Prove me wrong, JAG Corps--prove me wrong! Please.

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Sunday, September 19, 2004

My friend Amy sent me the following joke, which cracks me up. It feels refreshingly naughty to post it from here in the heart of Texas:

Little David was in his 4th grade class when the teacher asked the children what their fathers did for a living. All the typical answers came up - fireman, policeman, salesman, doctor, lawyer, etc.

David was being uncharacteristically quiet, so the teacher asked him about his father. "My father's an exotic dancer in a gay cabaret and takes off all his
clothes in front of other men and they put money in his underwear. Sometimes, if the offer is really good, he will go home with some guy and make love with him for money."

The teacher, obviously shaken by this statement, hurriedly set the other children to work on some exercises and took little David aside to ask him, "Is that really true about your father?"

"No," said David, "He works for the Republican National Committee to re-elect President Bush, but I was too embarrassed to say that in front of the other kids."

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We've been in San Antonio for over 24 hours, and I'm just now getting a chance to write. Like I said in my last post, a flight popped up to MacGuire AFB, NJ, on Thursday morning, thus rescuing us from having to hang around the airport all day waiting for the second flight to Baltimore.

At around 10:00 a.m. the kids and I and 32 other people climbed aboard a KC-10 (a tanker--I wonder if we refueled anybody as we crossed the Great Pond) and settled in for what turned out to be the best Atlantic crossing I have ever made. As on the C-5, there are no windows, and the seats are like old-fashioned airplane seats, from before the time that commercial airlines decided that passengers should be stacked like cordwood. These seats were large enough to handle a butt bigger than Twiggy's, with enough room in between the rows that I had a good 6 inches between my knees and the seat in front of me. On top of that, they were well padded and reclined quite far back. The kids and I had a row of 4 seats to ourselves, so we had plenty of room.

We had purchased the boxed lunches for $3.30 each. We each had 2 sandwiches, a soda, a bottle of water, a bag of chips, a bag of peanut M&Ms, a jello cup, a fruit cup, and a small pack of Oreos. I think next time, I'll buy just 2 lunches for us to all share.

The flight was uneventful, which was a nice change after our emergency evacuation in Dover last February. I was able to snooze for a good part of it, and I also spent some time staring up into the cockpit, over the pilot's shoulder, and into the clear blue sky. How nice to fly without the fear of some nutjob forcing his way into the cockpit!

We arrived in New Jersey at around 12:30 p.m., and I called for a taxi while Mike went to get the bags. I had checked 2 bags--1 full of all our clothes and toiletries and the other containing Mike's unicycle and our pillows. Would anybody care to take a guess as to which bag made it to New Jersey? At least we have a unicycle . . .

Filling out the claim form slowed us down by a couple of hours. By the time we got to the rental car company and set out for VA, it was 4:00 p.m. Fortunately, it was a fairly easy drive even though we saw the aftermath of 3 major wrecks and witnessed a tire blowout. I got very lost once I made it to Springfield--did I really live there for 2 years or was it all a dream?--but we made it to my friend Miki's house by around 7:30.

Miki had gone to my favorite Thai restaurant of all time that day and had garlic pork with jasmine rice waiting for us. First though, she and I dashed out so that I could get toothbrushes and other basic essentials for us.

The theory as to my missing bag had been that perhaps it went on the later flight to Baltimore on Thursday. So when we arrived at BWI Friday morning, the first thing I did was go check at the AMC counter. No luck. We set off for Texas on Southwest Airlines and arrived right on schedule at 6:00 that evening.

My friend Lis and her kids picked us up at the airport and took us out to dinner at Habaneros, our all-time favorite San Antonio restaurant. I am pleased to report that the steak nachos are every bit as good as I remembered. Mike and I each had an order of nachos, while Annabelle enjoyed her usual: 3 "veggie lovers" tacos--lettuce and tomato wrapped in flour tortillas. After supper we returned to Lis's house and continued to work on the Mystery of the Missing Suitcase.

Turns out my suitcase went to . . . ready for this? . . . England. Yup. That's where it is! The sergeant at Mildenhall last night tried to tell me that the options for it were to get sent back to Germany or to the east coast and no further. Turns out though that they will send it to the east coast and then Fed Ex it to me. It's scheduled to go on a C-5 to Dover on Monday. Who knows? With as reliable as C-5s are, I may have it this time next year.

I've spent much of today shopping to set us each up with a few days' worth of clothes. Thanks heavens for Target and for awesome sales at North Star Mall! I've had moments of absolute rage over the suitcase issue, especially when Mildenhall was telling me that I was SOL. I amused myself with my plans for the article that I envisioned in the San Antonio newspaper--Wife of Deployed Soldier Stranded in SATX with Unicycle; Air Force Denies Responsibility--and my plans for dragging Congress into this if I had to. Ever since I found out that that little misunderstanding had been rectified, I feel much more Zen-like about the whole thing. I see the news coming out of Pensacola in the wake of the hurricane and feel lucky that I am able to just hop into Target and come out with enough underwear and clothes for everybody. Plus, I got new shoes out of the deal, so that helps.

Still no word on whether Fred will be in Charlottesville. If you've got your fingers crossed for us, don't uncross them yet!

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Thursday, September 16, 2004

Greetings from Rhein-Main AFB! We arrived here at 5:00 this morning. The first flight to BWI had no seats available, as it was full of soldiers coming from downrange. We will be boarding our flight (KC10--is that an airplane? it sounds familiar) to McGuire AFB, NJ, in about a half an hour and we'll be in NJ by 12:30 local time. The next flight to BWI doesn't leave until around suppertime, so this is preferable to hanging out at the airport all day. More later . . .

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Wednesday, September 15, 2004

I have to get up in 5 hours to go to the airport, but I just wanted to post one more time before we leave town. I have my St. Petersburg pictures uploaded to an Image Station album; I'll post the link and blog that part of the trip from Texas. I promise . . . I hope.

Continue to keep fingers crossed that we are able to see Fred. I'm not going to be able to really breathe until this is settled once and for all. And if it's settled in the negative, I probably won't feel much like breathing.

Off to bed for now!

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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Well, I had wanted to get to Baltimore today, but it just didn't work out. I lost a couple of crucial packing days last week while I was in my funk over Fred's conference (still nothing, by the way). Last night I was struggling to get everything finished when I came up against a little interpersonal stupidity that derailed me for a couple more hours. By midnight I had decided that there was just no way I was getting out of bed at 3 a.m. and going to the airport. There are no flights tomorrow, but there are 2 on Thursday, and I don't anticipate any problems getting on one of those.

My friend Gretchyn sent me this, which I found amusing:

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Saturday, September 11, 2004

Who's your Baghdaddy?

Still no word on the conference. I hope I haven't somehow used up an entire year's worth of energy and good attitude in 4 months. The next 10 are really going to suck if that's the case.

I found myself crying this morning because we were out of butter. I really wanted popcorn dammit.

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Friday, September 10, 2004

I needed a good laugh tonight, and my cousin Ally just sent me one. Here's Hurricane Ivan's projected course:

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St. Petersburg--August 26-29, 2004 (finally!) 

[Written January 17, 2005, but stuck here to preserve chronology.]

The biggest drawback to big, labor-intensive trips like the one we took to Russia is that by the time I get home, I'm too exhausted to do it justice on the blog. I've been feeling guilty for over 5 months now for not having posted a report on the St. Petersburg half of the trip, and my memory isn't getting any sharper. That's unfortunate because one thing I do remember clearly is that I definitely preferred it to Moscow. While Moscow is by and large urban gloominess punctuated by spots of sheer brilliance, St. Petersburg is consistently beautiful. Even the stuff that isn't important historically is pretty to look at.

Rather than trying to reconstruct the entire visit here, I'll offer a few highlights and rely on my ImageStation album (which I fortunately put together back in September when my memory was reasonably fresh) to tell the rest of the story.

We stayed in the Hotel Okhtinskaya on the banks of the Neva River, and Mike was my roommate. He loves to tell about how I woke up from my nap that first afternoon shrieking hysterically that somebody had stolen my teeth. Oh, yes, I'm lots of fun as a roomie.

I'm opposed to animal exploitation, but I couldn't resist getting a picture of Mike and my mom with a real Russian bear:

Everywhere we go, I find myself taking pictures of the native kids:

Annabelle discovered a taste for espresso in St. Petersburg. She insists that Arabian espresso is the best:

Annabelle, Rebecca, and Mike enjoyed playing in the fountains at Peterhof in spite of the chilly weather:

Mike pretended to sulk about the skateboarder discrimination at the Catherine Palace:

Here's a shot of our whole tour group (except for me). The lady on the far right is our guide, Anna:

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I'm sitting here working on my St. Petersburg pictures, and I keep flipping over to AOL to check my email. I know Fred's at a trial right now, but I can't help myself. And even though I know I'm not expecting anything from him, every time I flip back to AOL and see my inbox still sitting there with exactly 40 messages in it, I get disappointed all over again. Or worse, I get 41 messages, but that last one is from somebody who wants to enlarge my penis or sell me drugs. Right now, drugs don't sound like such a bad idea.

Shortly after Fred's Charlottesville trip got cancelled out from under us, it was back on. He sent me a list of stuff to pack and bring over to him, and I started feeling good again. Over the past couple of days though, we're getting bad vibes on the whole stupid thing and we're awaiting the final answer out of DC. Even though the conference is still several weeks away, we need that answer NOW. The kids and I leave for the States no later than Tuesday, so we are running out of time for me to play baggage courier.

So here I sit, checking, checking, checking my email and feeling more and more desperate by the minute. I've been on the verge of tears for the past few days, and I just can't stand not knowing how much longer this is going to go on.

Meanwhile Fred is jumping through his own butt with trials and hearings and paperwork in Iraq. His courtroom lost windows in a mortar attack a couple weeks ago (he was out of town at the time, thank god), a couple days ago one of his attorneys was in a humvee that was flipped 3 times by an IED, and yesterday he heard a report that a friend of ours (yet another attorney) has been injured in the International Zone (no idea how or how badly). So the last thing I want to do is make Fred feel even worse, but I feel completely alone here. I really need him to be at this stupid conference.

And the hell of it is that it's not even some Great and Glorious Call to Duty that is potentially keeping him away. Instead it is nothing more than a bureaucratic screwup in the issuing of the invitations. Do we invite the Regional Defense Counsels this year or don't we? Yes, we do. No, we don't. Oh, wait, yes, we do. I'm sorry, but pregnant teenagers do a better job of planning weddings!

It's not like we're owed this chance to get together. After all, there are plenty of poor bastards in Iraq who haven't even managed to get midtour leave. But you know what? I don't have the energy right now to care about them. All I know is that I was counting on this to get me through until he gets his midtour in January or February, which in turn I'm counting on to get me through until he comes home sometime in July. Yes, May 2004 to July 2005. Count the months--there are 14 of them. Forgive me for wanting to see my husband twice in that time.

As with everything these days it all comes down to politics for me. My husband is stuck over there in that godforsaken hellhole of a country on the orders of the Great Pretender to the Throne. And there are people all across the country who are going to vote for that asshole again who have done nothing more to fight this War Against Terrorism than demonstrate their unwillingness to be cowed by taking the kids to Disney World. It makes me sick.

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And still more Moscow--Wednesday 

Very little of today's post takes place in Moscow, as we left the city for most of the day and journeyed to the small town of Sergiev Posad, whose Trinity Monastery is an important center for the Russian Orthodox church. The drive took about an hour, and we stopped along the way to look at a beautifully painted wooden house and pick green apples from a tree.

Along the way, Valentina delivered some distressing news: Two airplanes flying out of Moscow had exploded in midair, and everybody on board was dead. She hastened to assure us that there were no foreigners on board, and she mistakenly told us that one of the airliners was Aeroflot.

Once in the town, we stopped by a restaurant so that Valentina could confirm our lunch plans, and I took this picture of the kids while we waited for her:

From there we walked over to the monastery for our guided tour of the grounds. Tours like this always make me feel guilty--there I am surrounded by such amazing beauty, and I feel like I could sufficiently enjoy in, say, 5 to 10 minutes what it takes our guide half an hour to microscopically analyze. It was beautiful though, and I amused myself by taking photos. I think that this photo is my favorite one of all that I shot in Russia:

I love her sweet face. I love how she clearly looked directly at me. Her father (grandfather?) was leading her along by the hand rather impatiently, and he was in much too much of a hurry to see me, but she did. He's probably one of the most important people in her life, and he doesn't know everything she sees, even when he is right there by her side. It makes me wonder what I miss of my own children's realities.

This is another of my favorites. I call it "Flock of Babushkas":

After a delicious lunch (finally, borscht!), we climbed back into our bus and headed back to Moscow. We had checked out of our hotel that morning, and we had a couple hours to kill before meeting our group for our last dinner in Moscow. We amused ourselves by exploring GUM once again. We visited a fancy-pants icecream shop where we spent an insane amount of money (something like 25 euro for the icecream you see below--euro demanded; change given in rubles). It was quite delicious though:

Here are the kids with Valentina and an unidentified man with an unidentified bird outside the restaurant that night:

After supper, we had a brief wait for some of our tour members who had attended the circus that night. It gave me a chance to capture Basil by night:

And then we were on our way to the train station! It was quite a chaotic scene, both in the parking lot and on the platform. Finally, we were all bedded down in our cozy (very!) compartments and managed to survive a not-too-terribly-uncomfortable 8-hour ride to St. Petersburg:

Now, at this point you're probably saying to yourself, "But she said she took over 350 photos! And there are only a dozen or so in all of her Moscow posts put together. Where are the rest?" The rest of them are right here--please take a moment to check them out.

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The L.A. Times from September 5 has a really good article about American soldiers who are blogging from Iraq. The article also offers samples from different blogs, and I wanted to share this one, which chokes me up a little every time I read it:

Sean Pearce enlisted in the Army in 1998. He served six years in the Signal Corps as a satellite technician, with tours in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and at Camp Victory, the main U.S. military complex near Baghdad airport. He returned to the U.S. in September 2003. He now lives in Virginia, where he works in communications and plans to complete his college education. He has now married the girlfriend he writes about in this excerpt. His Iraq blog is at http://www.turningtables.blogspot.com .
August 5, 2003

Tonight I got to talk to my girlfriend via visual teleconferencing. It went really well. I waited around until the middle of the night, and then I was escorted into the area where all the magic happens, past giant wall-sized television screens with maps and diagrams, past rows and rows of desks with computers and soldiers working around the clock on the war effort, and into the conference room, which was exactly that. I'm so used to seeing rooms and quarters converted into conference rooms. They are set up in kitchens or garages or boiler rooms. But this one was an honest-to-god conference room that I'm sure was used by Saddam and all of his buddies. Now it belongs to us, because we took it.

As I stroll in, the family of the sergeant who went before me is still on the giant screen. I see his wife trying desperately to keep her composure and get her three kids out of the room where they were filmed in an orderly fashion. Then, in the corner of the screen coming through the doorway is a very distorted shape that the camera is trying to focus on. It walks like my girlfriend. It's the same size as my girlfriend. And it is my girlfriend. She giggles, and I wave and smile.

I have to press a foot switch every time I want to speak so that the microphone turns off. Otherwise the delay will cause a killer echo. There is at least a 15-second delay that makes normal conversation useless. Speak. Pause. Pause. Pause. Pause. Response. But she is there and she can hear me and I can see her.

She's wearing the Curious George shirt I bought her on the Universal City Walk in L.A. It fits her perfectly, and her hair is beautiful. She's had three hair cuts since I left, but luckily she sends me pictures, so I stay up to date with the girlfriend fashions.

We have this silly thing that we do. It started one night when we were at a rave in L.A. To the beat, I say "girlfriend" while I nod my head. Then I say "run in place," which I do to the beat. It's a sign of my affection. So there I am, in Baghdad, Iraq, running in place in Saddam's conference room so that my girlfriend can watch me on the other side of the Earth.

I showed her my muscles, my big ol' arms that are twice the size as when I left. She was impressed — or she at least faked it for me. She's a good woman.

I left hating this place more then ever, but also feeling a bit more relaxed. I made it to my cot, and I sweated off into sleep. This is almost over.

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Thursday, September 09, 2004

More Moscow--Tuesday  

Perhaps the worst part of our trip was the way the tour schedule kept changing on us. When we arrived in Moscow we were told that the circus, which we had expected to attend on Monday evening, would instead be on Wednesday evening, with a boat ride on Monday. Then it was going to be circus on Monday and boat ride on Wednesday, which would have left us with Tuesday afternoon free. Eventually though, it wound up being boat ride on Tuesday afternoon.

Mom and I had decided that we would like to skip Tuesday morning's activities (tour of the Moscow metro stations, which are amazing, but we had seen amazing metro stations the previous day, followed by a tour of the Tretyakov Gallery) in favor of revisiting the flea market. At dinner Monday night, I discussed this plan with Valentina, but she insisted that we would not be able to meet up with the group at lunchtime or for the boat ride and proposed a counterplan: We would go for the metro tour and let the bus driver take us to Detskiy Mir while the others toured the Tretyakov, and then she would join us for the market after we all went on the boatride together.

I have always wanted to visit Detskiy Mir (meaning "Children's World"), which is this huge toy store that sits catty corner to Lubyanka, home of KGB headquarters and its infamous prison. Every time we drove past it on the bus tour, I pointed it out to my companions: "Torture! Toys! Torture! Toys! Never confuse those two."

So we set off Tuesday morning with the others to visit the metro stations. By the second or third station, Mom's feet were killing her and we were beginning to regret that we had agreed to the metro tour at all. As we were getting ready to leave the metro, Valentina began to cajole me in front of all the others about whether we could please go along to the Tretyakov? She batted her eyes and assured me that we would only be there for an hour, but I was getting pretty steamed. She and I had a plan worked out and now she wanted to change the plan on me. I felt embarassed with everybody staring at me, so I told her not to worry about us and certainly not to change the tour on our account. But there was no way in hell I was going into the Tretyakov!

We reached the Tretyakov Gallery, and this is where I started getting really upset. Valentina asked in the group for somebody to speak English and translate for me so that she could explain the plan. My German was better than the English of all but perhaps 2 people on that tour (she said modestly), and I didn't need a translator. I needed a guide who made one plan and stuck to the darn thing! I felt frustrated and embarassed, so I did what I generally do when I feel frustrated and embarassed: stalked off in a snit and burst into tears. Mom, the kids, and I spent the next hour and a half hanging out in a nearby park. (Now that the trip is over, I rave about Valentina as being part of what made it so special and interesting. Mike is always quick to remind me: "But, Mom, she made you cry!")

After the rest of our group returned from the museum, Valentina redeemed herself and surprised me with a stop at Detskiy Mir on our way to lunch. It was amazingly cool--so much nicer than your standard Toys R Us. Annabelle bought a stuffed anteater for the equivalent of $6, and I got the kids a very small Playmobil set to add to their collection. Aside from the anteater, everything in the store was terribly expensive, so we treated it as a museum: look, but don't buy.

We had lunch that day on a boat docked in the Moscow River. The main course was a rather unremarkable fried whitefish. But the atmosphere was pleasant, and the kids enjoyed watching a cockatoo who sat on top of his cage 10 feet away from us.

After lunch, we got on another boat for a river tour of Moscow. We sailed past Moscow State University, Gorky Park, the Peter the Great Monument, the Kremlin and Red Square, and it was a nice enough trip. The weather had returned to being clear, if a little chilly, after the rainstorm of the previous day, and it was a good day to be on the river. I'm not sure it was worth the almost-$100 it cost us, but it's only money, right?

When we returned to the hotel, Valentina accompanied us to the flea market. Mike was devastated to find that his beloved CD/DVD vendor isn't there on Mondays and Tuesdays. It was getting late, and the shops that were there were starting to close, so we headed back to the hotel. We enjoyed our supper and then hit the internet cafe in the hotel lobby before heading up to bed.

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Finally, the first Russia post! (Sunday and Monday) 

I know I must just seem like the blogging slug of the century--here we are, back from Russia for a week and a half, and I am just now getting around to posting about it. You have to understand though: I returned home from Russia with 350+ photos spread out across 4 memory sticks. It takes a lot of time to go through all those pictures, do the laundry, feed the kids occasionally, AND obsess about a hurricane threatening to obliterate the family homestead. It's a good thing I don't have a job, or I'd never get anything done. I am now going to attempt to show you around Moscow with a little help from Moscow Taxi.

We left for Russia well before dawn on the morning of Sunday, August 22. Amy, Mom, and I had driven up to the airport the night before to check the bags, and it's a good thing we did. Our train out of Mannheim was close to a half-hour late; we would have most likely missed our flight if we'd needed to wait in the check-in line that morning.

The plane ride was uneventful, and we reached Moscow at around lunchtime. The immigration control folks wouldn't accept the forms that the Moscow embassy had pre-printed for us to turn in, so we had to fill out new forms there at the airport--business as usual for Russia. We were met by Valentina, our Moscow tour guide, and taken by van to the hotel.

The first thing that struck us about Moscow was the intense heat. We had been following the weather forecasts for the previous 7 days, and they were consistently predicting cool temps and lots of rain. Ha! It was hot and dusty when we arrived, and we were quite toasty in our long sleeves and long pants.

After Valentina got us checked into our rooms at the Hotel Izmailovo, Alpha Block, we had the rest of the afternoon to do as we pleased, as supper would not be served that first night until 9:00 p.m. The first thing we did was hightail it to the nearby flea market, the biggest one in all of Russia.

The walk to the flea market drove home the fact that we were in an entirely different culture. It reminded me of a market scene in an Indiana Jones movie--hot and dirty with "dancing" bears on chain leashes.

The flea market was the scene of perhaps our greatest regret in Russia. We should have bought more--more little dolls in traditional dress, more matrioshka dolls, more Russian Santas, and--in Mike's case anyway--more black-market CDs and DVDs. We were overwhelmed by choice though, and we were starting to feel hungry, so we made a few purchases and promised each other that we would indeed return!

I wandered away from the group to look at something and when I returned, Annabelle was in the middle of being sketched by a wandering artist:

He gladly posed for a picture with her when he was done drawing:

Here's the picture and while it is really good, I'm embarrassed to admit what I paid for it (cough 30 bucks cough). I just don't have it in me to haggle over a picture of my kid, I guess:

After the market, we walked over to the metro station directly across from our hotel and hopped on a train to Arbatskaya, as instructed by the clerk at the reception desk, in search of the Hard Rock Cafe. Smolenskaya would have been a much closer station, but getting off at Arbatskaya gave us an opportunity to stroll the pedestrian zone on Ulitsa Arbat. We finally found the Hard Rock and fed the kids meals, not knowing whether they would be willing to eat the hotel food or not. Amy, Mom, and I shared an appetizer platter, and Mom and I shared a Bahama Mama as well. After the meal, I took a picture of the rest of my gang on the front steps of the restaurant:

At this point, we still believed that our good weather was a temporary stroke of dumb luck (and in a way it was), and I was determined that we should see St. Basil's cathedral and Red Square while the sun was still shining. As we were searching unsuccessfully for the closest metro stop, we were approached by a taxi driver. We would love to take a taxi, I explained, but unfortunately there was no way 6 people besides the driver were going to fit in that little car. I was wrong--you can smoosh 5 people into the backseat of even the smallest car if the price is right, which at approximately $10 it was. I took the front seat, as I was the only one who spoke any Russian at all (I pointed at different buildings and said "pretty" in my bestest Russian all the way to Red Square). Our driver ran only 1 red light that I noticed, and we arrived at Red Square just before sunset.

Annabelle immediately announced a need to find a restroom. There was a row of pay port-a-potties tended by little old women, so Mom took Annabelle and an American dollar over and looked for the cleanest dirty pot. The woman in charge of that particular potty got a bargain, because not only did Mom personally clean the facilities with her own stash of alcohol wipes, but she also paid a buck for the privilege of doing so. After that brief comfort stop, we headed under the Resurrection Gate and found ourselves in Red Square.

Red Square is amazing. Picture a large rectangle bounded on its 2 long walls by the Kremlin wall on one side and the shopping center GUM on the other. The State Historical Museum stands at one end, and St. Basil's stands at the other. This website has a couple of nice 360-degree views of Red Square.

We took turns taking pictures in front of Lenin's tomb and in front of St. Basil's. Of the 350+ photos I have from the entire week, probably 10 percent are of this church. I seem to have a disorder that requires me to photograph it every time I walk past it, drive by it in a bus, or ride by it in a boat on the Moscow River. I left Red Square that evening delighted to have beaten the rain, even if my lighting was starting to go dim.

We took the metro back to our hotel and met up with some of the other members of our guided tour at supper that night in the hotel restaurant. Supper got mixed reviews--it was meat and potatoes, which is great if you're into that kind of thing. I can take it in small quantities, but it was a common culinary theme throughout the week, and it got a bit tiring. One thing that helped us through the week was switching food around--the adults generally got doubles on salads, as the salads weren't very popular with the kids; Rebecca took care of any surplus potatoes; and you could always count on Annabelle to wolf down any unwanted tomatoes.

Monday, August 23, was Annabelle's ninth birthday. She was very excited to be celebrating it in Moscow.

That morning after a breakfast that featured such diverse choices as spaghetti (no sauce), french fries, and blini (little cheese-filled pancake pockets smothered with quark), we met Valentina and the other members of our group. We had 2 sets of mothers and adult daughters from Austria; an older German married couple; a young German/Russian girl and her German boyfriend; and a young man from Stuttgart (who reminded me and Mom of my sister's fiance--in fact, we dubbed him "German Jeff" and "J'Lal," which stood for "Jeff Look-A-Like") who was taking the tour with his parents.

We set out from the hotel for our Stadtrundfahrt ("city circle tour"--) in our tour bus. Being on a German tour provided a 2-for-1 special for me--not only did I get an amazing vacation, but I also got a week of intensive German practice through translating for Mom, Amy, and the kids.

One of the first stops on our tour was Red Square. Our fears of the approaching rain were thus far unfounded, and we enjoyed glorious weather for more St. Basil photographing:

We visited Kazan Cathedral at the other end of Red Square and walked back through GUM, which is pronounced "goom" and is an enormous shopping center running the length of the square. We noticed posters throughout GUM of a little cartoon mouse- or bear-type creature--it was Cheburashka, a Russian cartoon character that served as the mascot for the Russian Olympic team. I could have bought a stuffed one at GUM for a ton of money, but instead I found one at a souvenir stand for $10--mine plays a most annoying tune when you press his stomach.

After our walking journey through Red Square, we returned to our bus to continue the driving tour. We drove past the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, blown to pieces courtesy of Stalin in 1931 but reconstructed in 1994-97, and caught a glimpse of the monument to Peter the Great that towers over the river. We drove by the Church of St. Nicholas of the Weavers and stopped off at the Novodevichiy Convent.

Somewhere along the way, we stopped off at a souvenir shop where we were greeted with free samples of vodka. Valentina bought Annabelle a wooden doll and spoon in honor of her birthday:

We wound up near the Moscow State University, where we were able to see an overview of the city below us and shop for souvenirs. I bought a very cool Tshirt. On the front, it features Lenin's head pictured across those ubiquitous golden arches; on the back, it sports the slogan: "The party is over."

After lunch at a restaurant downtown, we began our tour of the Kremlin. No sooner were we inside the Kremlin walls than the sky started turning ominously dark.

We strolled past the State Kremlin Palace, which Valentina derided as ugly and out of place. She predicted that it would be torn down sometime in the coming years. We also saw the Ivan the Great Bell Tower and the Tsar Bell and Tsar Cannon.

We were able to go into 2 of the Kremlin churches. Here is where I'm wishing I had blogged sooner or made notes: I know for a fact that the second church we went in was the Cathedral of the Assumption, but what was the first one? It might have been the Cathedral of the Archangel . . . or it might have been the Cathedral of the Annunciation.

We left the second church, the Cathedral of the Assumption, just as the rain started to fall. We dashed across the courtyard and huddled in small groups into recesses along the side of the Great Kremlin Palace. I was in one recess with Amy, and my mom was 1 recess ahead of me with the kids. Suddenly a crack of lightning hit directly in front of us, and scared us all half to death. I knew that the noise would have really shaken Annabelle up, and as I dashed through the rain to be with her, I found this to be quite true. She was terrified and crying hysterically.

Soon our entire tour group was running through the pouring rain in a mad dash to escape the Kremlin and get back on our nice dry bus. Unfortunately, the exit gate was clogged with people who had taken refuge from the rain under the arch. There was a crowd of people, many with umbrellas open, pressing to get through this small tunnel, and it was turning into a potentially dangerous situation.

Just to the left of the pedestrian arch was a gate just for vehicular traffic. Mom and I took the kids and went over to ask the guard to let us out that way. At the same time that we were trying without success to make him understand the situation in the pedestrian exit, a Russian man came over and began demanding to be let out the vehicle gate. The guard yelled back, unsnapped his holster, and pulled his pathetic little weenie of a gun out several inches to show us all that he was not somebody to be messed with. No way was anybody going out that gate!

The scene was chaos. We had just had a gun semi-pulled in front of us. Our guide was yelling at the guard in Russian. I was yelling in English, pointing at Annabelle and demanding, "Can't you see she's scared?" We kept trying to impress upon him the need to call for backup to break up the logjam in the pedestrian exit, and I remember yelling at him that "somebody could die in there!"

Next thing I knew, he pointed straight at me and yelled, "You! Shut! Up!"

"No, YOU shut up!" I yelled back. I'm fuzzy on what happened next, but I'm pretty sure he called me a bitch because the next thing I knew, I was thrusting my middle finger in the air and screaming "F--- YOU!" at the top of my lungs.

He screamed it back at me, but he didn't shoot me, so all things considered it was a pretty good day at the Kremlin.

By this point, Annabelle was crying hysterically not because of the thunder and lightning but because she was within minutes of really, really, REALLY turning 9 (8:25 a.m., Eastern Standard Time), and she did NOT want to do it under these circumstances. Another guard arrived who cleared the exit, and we were able to make our escape from the Kremlin and as far as Annabelle knows, she turned 9 in the comfort and security of the bus.

We made it back to the hotel just in time to catch a quick shower before heading out to the circus. While they had an elephant and a camel and a few other exotic animals in the lobby for picture-taking purposes, I was relieved to see that the show itself revolved more around clowns and acrobatics than animal acts. They did have horses, dogs, monkeys, and even llamas, but there were no tigers, no elephants, and no dancing Russian bears.

After the circus, we headed back to the hotel to try and catch up on our sleep and get ready for our second full day in Russia.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Well, Mom has arrived home safe and sound. While Dad was out picking her up from the shuttle, their electricity came back on, so they're very happy about that.

This morning I took the kids to the Peter K salon in Lampertheim. We all got haircuts, the kids got highlights, and I had my gray highlights turned back to their original brown. I got Peter to take a picture of us when we were in mid-treatment; it looks to me like an Amish woman with her 2 children from outer space:

We were all very happy with the results though:

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Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Oh, happy day! I thought I'd never find it, but then there it was, courtesy of Newsday. Just go to the Newsday link and click on the "Audio" button that's located near the right-hand margin, and you too can hear the line about OB/GYNs "practicing their love" on the women of America as the words trip ever so lightly off Bush's delicately forked tongue. The only thing that could make me happier would be to find a video so I could watch his smirky little face while he says it. Oh, well, maybe tomorrow . . .

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This afternoon my dad told me about a recent Bush-ism that will keep me snickering off and on for the rest of the day. As reported by Reuters:

At a rally of cheering supporters in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, Bush made his usual pitch for limiting "frivolous lawsuits" that he said drive up the cost of health care and run doctors out of business.

But then he added, "We've got an issue in America. Too many good docs are getting out of business. Too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country."
Practice their love? Ewwwww . . .

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Sunday, September 05, 2004

I've tried my hardest to stay semi-up to date in my blogging, but somehow this summer I've managed to miss blogging several important things. I could just tack them all on here, but I don't like the disorderliness of getting the chronology messed up. I could just sneak posts in at the proper times, but then you would miss out on getting to see them. So I've opted for the middle ground: I've inserted new posts in old spots, but I'll give links to them here.

So if you're interested in reading about the second day of our adventure with Gretchyn, or some of my dad's trip (like the visit to Legoland or to visit old friends of ours or to retrace some of my grandfather's WWII steps), or Annabelle's birthday party, you will now be able to!

I've been working on these catch-up posts for over a month now, and it feels so good to be finally caught up. Except for those 350 pictures I took in Russia--still need to take care of getting those posted! You'll be happy to learn though that I have gone through the Moscow shots and am ready to start blogging the first half of the trip. I hope to have the St. Petersburg photos ready to go soon.

Mom is still stranded here. We're enjoying our extra time with her, but I know it's driving her crazy to be watching the storm from half a world away. We talked to Dad and Jenny a little while ago, and they have been without power since early this morning.

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Thursday, September 02, 2004

Well, Condor has finally cancelled my mom's flight tomorrow on account of the hurricane. Hours after Orlando International Airport announced that they were closing at noon tomorrow, Condor was still holding "meetings" to figure out what to do. They finally cancelled it and told us to call again on Saturday at noon Central Standard Time.

So now we have a couple extra days together! We just need to figure out how to spend them. Given that Floridians are being urged to evacuate, we've considered fleeing to Poland. But we're pretty exhausted on the heels of the Russia trip, so we will probably evacuate only as far as the international bazaar that they're having down in Heidelberg this weekend.

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Wednesday, September 01, 2004

I'm really glad that the Russia trip is behind us. It was freaky enough being there when the planes went down last week. But now with the news of the metro bombing and the school hostage situation . . . it's just too much. The hostage crisis tugs at my sympathies because of the children involved. The metro bombing hits a little too close to home though: the station that was bombed is exactly 2 stops south of the hotel where I stayed in 1986 when I visited Moscow and also 2 stops south of where our tour guide lives. I don't know what we would have done if all this had happened the week before our trip instead of the week after.

Today we took Mom to the mall, to my favorite plant store, and out to the Odenwald to one of our favorite restaurants. Tomorrow morning she and I are going to go to the mall for cake and coffee for breakfast, and in the afternoon we're taking her to the Luisenpark.

I can't believe her month with us is almost over. She is scheduled to leave on Friday, but we don't know how Hurricane Frances is going to affect her travel arrangements.

I've decided to just relax and enjoy our remaining time together and worry about blogging Russia over the weekend. I did manage to get the photos transferred from the camera to the computer, so I'm making baby steps.

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